It’s International Women’s Day

Paul Raven @ 08-03-2011

Did you know that International Women’s Day has been celebrated for over a century? I didn’t know that, and it shames me to say so, but it’s never too late to learn (or so I hope). I’m sure someone will decide to tell us how we don’t overlook the achievements and freedom of women at all, which will be frustrating… but will also demonstrate the presence of the very blindspot it attempts to deny. And so it goes.

All I can say in response is that the feeling that comes from having this particular cultural myopia pointed out to oneself – which always feels to me a little like being debagged in a public space, though less severe each time – is perhaps best looked at in the same way as the muscular pain that comes from unaccustomed heavy exercise, or that brain-stretched sensation that comes with learning something challenging and new. Does it feel like an unwarranted personal attack? Well, welcome to how a lot of women feel. All. Of. The. Time. Your mother, your wife or partner, your sister, your friends.

Oh, they haven’t told you that they felt that way? Well, perhaps there’s a reason for that. Give it some thought.

Anyways, here’s Annie Lennox and a bunch of successful British women discussing the meaning of feminism in the 21st Century. A quote from novelist Monica Ali:

There’s a perception that as countries develop economically issues of gender and inequality will automatically get better, whereas the whole thing needs to be stood on its head so that gender inequality is at the very centre of it all. A lot of studies show that if you focus on women’s rights that in itself is an engine for development. Female literacy rates strongly correlate with fertility rates, so if you educate women you will have fewer and healthier children. If you invest in women, the money they make will then be more likely to be invested in their families and local communities. Gender isn’t something to be dragged along behind.

As we look to the changes in the Middle East, and as our governments ponder what sort of intervention methods will best suit their long-term interests there, let’s at least all spare a moment to imagine the difference that investing in education and literacy could make to the lives of the less-fortunate, and speak in favour of it. Silence is complicity. And remember that while the situation for women in the West is much improved by comparison to those in developing nations, equality gets more lip-service than air-time. I am guilty of this, too, but I am working to do better. Perhaps you will, too.

Every woman is your sister. Every one.


The sex Kinection

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

We’ve already looked at people with privacy concerns over Microsoft’s freshly open-source-driver’d Kinect controller, but there’s another end to the spectrum of attitudes to new technology: while some folk worry about what the Kinect might do in the wrong hands, others are busily and cheerfully working out what it could do while something more personal is in their own hands… or elsewhere [via grinding.be]. Look away now if geeky people discussing smutty uses of consumer electronics products is likely to offend…

So what can the kinect bring to sex? Well, probably not a good real time rendering of your cock, or strap-on, or really any genitalia a usable way for pornography. Why? Because that’s not really what it was made for.

Microsoft put a ton of work into making the kinect track the human body as a whole, so you can play games by jumping and running and generally acting the fucking fool and feel like you’re in the game instead of just sad. Genitalia, for the most part, are not a major geometric feature of the human body when taken in perspective of physical size (as opposed to say, genitalia perspective in relation to the ego, where they may actually make up more than 100%). Neither are they normally used in the control of video games, be they rated everyone or AO. Not to say that experiment hasn’t been tried, but it didn’t turn out too well, and we’re probably a few years off of the video game market being ready for Mike Tyson’s Super Cockslap-Out. So why even try to track that small part when you’re interested in the whole body? You may be able to see it, but it won’t work well.

[…]

The kinect alliviates the need for having hardware, because now as long as we have a shot of the “action”, as it were, we can use that “gesture” as a control. Not only that, the gesture itself is the toy. Or you could employ a toy under the gesture. The possibilities, they may or may not halt.

With masturbation, however, the kinect does not make this a trivially solved problem. Due to the close contact of the hand with the body, possibly with some inanimate object in between, there will still have to be some calibration and thresholding to figure out exactly where the genitalia versus the hand versus the surrounding body parts are. We’ll have the image and the depth data, but it’s not like the above above video where the hands are being held far out from the body, which is a situation the kinect is made for. Masturbation and general self-manipulation is something that’s out of the kinect’s normal operating procedure, but I’m sure we’ll figure something out. We’re smart and bored, after all.

Bonus: here’s Penny Arcade with some, ah, commentary:

Fundamentally accurate - Penny Arcade

*ahem*

And here’s Jonah Lehrer at Wired talking about the Kinect in terms of less explicit – but arguably more fundamental – unions between the body and the machine:

For most of the 20th century, [William] James’ theory of bodily emotions was ignored. It just seemed too implausible. But in the early 1980s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio realized that James was mostly right: Many of our emotions are preceded by changes in our physical body. Damasio came to this conclusion after studying neurological patients who, after suffering damage in their orbitofrontal cortex or somatosensory cortex, were unable to experience any emotion at all. Why not? The tight connection between the mind and body had been broken. Even though these patients could still feel their flesh – they weren’t paraplegic – they could no longer use their body to generate feelings. And if you can’t produce the bodily symptoms of an emotion – the swelling tear ducts of sadness, or the elevated heart rate of fear – then you can’t feel the emotion. As Damasio notes, “The mind is embodied, not just embrained.”

[…]

Although we might look a little foolish flailing around the living room, the game has managed to excite our flesh, and that means our emotions aren’t far behind. As a result, we are more scared by the possibility of virtual death (and more thrilled by the virtual victory) because our body is fully engaged with the game.

For decades, video game designers have been obsessed with visual realism, as if the eyeball was the key to our emotional brain. But accurate graphics have diminishing returns. At a certain point, we don’t need more pixels – we need more physicality. And that’s what’s so exciting about the Kinect (and the Wii before that): For the first time, video games are able to deliver a visceral emotional experience, as our body is tricked into confusing fiction with reality.

The Kinect is admittedly a pretty basic implementation of all this potential, but then the first product to market usually is. Interesting times ahead.


Physical gender not determined by XY chromosomes after all

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Via Cheryl Morgan, news of recent research that’s blown holes in a lot of our preconceptions about how the physical sex of a mammal is determined by genetics. I’ll quote Cheryl rather than the article, because she uses less sciencespeak:

We have known for a long time that physical sex is much more complex than simply having XX or XY chromosomes. According to this article we now understand the exact mechanism by which a body will develop either testes or ovaries. Of particular importance is the fact that this mechanism involves a gene that is not on either the X or Y chromosome, and is active for only a very short period in the embryo’s development. There are therefore definite possibilities for things to go wrong in an embryo with perfectly normal X, and Y if it exists, chromosomes.

Even more startlingly (and potentially annoying for feminist separatists) is the following:

“The research challenges several long held assumptions, such that female development happens by default, or that once formed, mature tissues are immutable or fixed.”

And near the end of the press release, there’s this:

… if it is possible to change adult gonad type from ovary to testes or even the reverse, it may eventually allow individuals with gender dysphoria, who feel they are trapped in the wrong sex, to change their gonads appropriately rather than having them removed surgically as part of their treatment to undergo gender reassignment.

Another little step closer to living in Iain M Banks’ Culture universe… 🙂


Sexbots sashaying across the Uncanny Valley

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2010

2010 is shaping up to be a busy year in robotics, if the number of robo-related posts flowing through my RSS pipes are anything to go by. Here are just a handful of ’em for you…

First of all, nascent sexbot company TrueCompanion debuted Roxxxy [see image] at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo at Vegas just after the new year [via SlashDot and Technovelgy]:

“She can’t vacuum, she can’t cook but she can do almost anything else if you know what I mean,” TrueCompanion’s Douglas Hines said while introducing AFP to Roxxxy.

Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.

“She’s a companion. She has a personality. She hears you. She listens to you. She speaks. She feels your touch. She goes to sleep. We are trying to replicate a personality of a person.”

Roxxxy stands five feet, seven inches tall, weighs 120 pounds, “has a full C cup and is ready for action,” according to Hines, who was an artificial intelligence engineer at Bell Labs before starting TrueCompanion.

[…]

Roxxxy comes with five personalities. Wild Wendy is outgoing and adventurous, while Frigid Farrah is reserved and shy.

There is a young naive personality along with a Mature Martha that Hines described as having a “matriarchal kind of caring.” S & M Susan is geared for more adventurous types.

Aspiring partners can customize Roxxxy features, including race, hair color and breast size. A male sex robot named “Rocky” is in development.

Somehow, I find Hines a bit more creepy than Roxxxy. And if you find the notion of people building sexbots a little odd, wait until you hear Hines’ motivations for creating her…

Inspiration for the sex robot sprang from the September 11, 2001 attacks, when planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and an empty field in Pennsylvania.

“I had a friend who passed away in 9/11,” Hines said. “I promised myself I would create a program to store his personality, and that became the foundation for Roxxxy True Companion.”

Ummm, OK…

Meanwhile, South Korean roboticists are focussing on more, ah, domestic applications as they work on building a walking robot housemaid:

Mahru-Z has a human-like body including a rotating head, arms, legs and six fingers plus three-dimensional vision to recognise chores that need to be tackled, media reports said Monday.

“The most distinctive strength of Mahru-Z is its visual ability to observe objects, recognise the tasks needed to be completed, and execute them,” You Bum-Jae, head of the cognitive robot centre at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, told the Korea Times.

“It recognises people, can turn on microwave ovens, washing machines and toasters, and also pick up sandwiches, cups and whatever else it senses as objects.”

Ideal for the frat-house with money to spare, then. But careful programming is of the essence if we’re to live side by side with robots, as is a legal framework that accomodates the ethical and social grey areas that our mechanical servants will bring with them [via Cheryl Morgan]:

Driverless cars may be one of the more gentle uses of robotics but even they will need a host of new rules written to help them fit smoothly into our society.

Take questions of insurance, for example – in the event of an accident, who do you hold responsible? If the crash involves an artificially intelligent robot, do you blame its creator, or the robot that can think for itself?

It’s a problem that would apply to any autonomous robot large enough to do accidental or erroneous damage to humans or property, according to Sharkey. “[It’s] going to be the same with any robot in the public domain that’s independent. Who’s accountable? Who’s responsible?”

There would also be the issue of which humans associated with the robot would be blamed for any misuse…

“There could be a very long chain of accountability,” he added. “The manufacturer, the person who deployed it, the person who’s using it currently. If I’m irresponsible with my autonomous car is it my fault? That’s one of the problems with it.”

And then there are the robots that are actually designed to damage people on purpose – there’s a whole raft of ethical OMGWTF wrapped up with military robotics (as we’ve discussed here before):

While robot fighters may remain on every military’s must-have list, the structures needed to define how such armed and potentially deadly autonomous agents should be used and not used are not yet in place.

“This is not science fiction anymore,” said Ron Chrisley, professor of philosophy at Sussex University. “This is really a pressing question – because in particular the US military is building more and more artificial systems that are going to be responsible for in some sense deciding whether or not to bomb co-ordinates or something. Now we need to get ethical principles in place to say, well, even if this system is in some sense responsible that doesn’t mean that this other system – namely the people who deployed it – are not also responsible.”

“I would hope that in the very near future a very rich field of machine ethics, machine-human ethics starts developing,” he added.

Looks like not everyone has heard about Roxxxy, however:

“I’m surprised frankly that the sex industry hasn’t yet cottoned on to robotics,” the University of the West of England’s Winfield said.

“For better or for worse, whatever your opinion on the subject, it is true that the sex industry has been responsible for a good deal of innovation on the internet, in terms of web technologies and so on,” he added.

Sex with robots is inevitable, in Sheffield University’s Sharkey’s view. Marriage, however, is not, according to another AI researcher, David Levy.

“I don’t agree with him that people will marry robots, except slightly perverted people. I can’t imagine you’d want to marry it but certainly robots will be used in the sex industry, there’s no doubt about that. And you could think of that as dystopian – I would. But people have sex with dolls, so you just make the doll move a little bit and you’ve got a robot.

Levy’s theories sound a little weird at first, but he’s very persuasive – not in a sleazy way, but in the manner of someone who really seems to have thought things through. Only time will tell whether he’s right, of course… but I wouldn’t bet against him at the moment, for whatever that’s worth.

Last but not least, the Uncanny Valley of the title is a well-known buzz-phrase, at least among the geeky sort of circles that read this site… but it may also be a completely bankrupt theory. There’s certainly no research that supports it, according to Popular Mechanics:

Despite its fame, or because of it, the uncanny valley is one of the most misunderstood and untested theories in robotics. While researching this month’s cover story […] about the challenges facing those who design social robots, we expected to spend weeks sifting through an exhaustive supply of data related to the uncanny valley—data that anchors the pervasive, but only loosely quantified sense of dread associated with robots. Instead, we found a theory in disarray. The uncanny valley is both surprisingly complex and, as a shorthand for anything related to robots, nearly useless.

I know that I can vouch for the occasional creepiness of humanoid robots (not to mention metaverse avatars, which can be alarmingly ultrarealistic), but I guess it’s a tricky thing to quantify and measure… because it seems to be a predominantly remote effect:

According to all of the roboticists and computer scientists we interviewed, the uncanny is in short supply during face-to-face contact with robots. Two of the robots that inspire the most terror—and accompanying YouTube comments—are Osaka University’s CB2, a child-like, gray-skinned robot, and KOBIAN, Waseda University’s hyper-expressive humanoid. In person, no one rejected the robots. No one screamed and threw chairs at them, or smiled politely and slipped out to report lingering feelings of abject horror. In one case, a local Japanese newspaper tried to force the issue, bringing a group of seniors to visit the full-lipped, almost impossibly creepy-looking KOBIAN. One senior nearly cried, claiming that she felt like the robot truly understood her. A previously skeptical journalist wound up smiling and cuddling with the ominous little CB2. The only exception was a princess from Thailand, who couldn’t quite bring herself to help CB2 to its robotic feet.

Royalty notwithstanding, the uncanny effect appears to be an incredibly specific and specialized phenomenon: It seems to happen, when it does, remotely. In person, the uncanny vanishes. There’s nothing in the way of peer-reviewed evidence to support this, but then, there’s almost nothing to confirm the uncanny effect’s existence in the first place. As an unsupported theory that has morphed into a nerdy breed of urban legend, anecdotes are all we have to work with.

I expect we’ll discover a whole new load of phobias and neuroses when humanoid robots are more commonplace. How long it’ll be before that happens is an open question, but I’d suggest that the next decade will see robots invading our homes and workplaces in ever greater numbers. So smile and be friendly… but keep your multitool handy, OK?


The sexbots are coming

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2009

EveR-3 androidWould you have sex with a robot? My money would be on most of you answering with a firm and assertive “no”… but David Levy thinks otherwise.

Levy just won this year’s Loebner Prize – the Turing Test contest for chat-bots, which he last won back in 1997. But writing convincing chatbots isn’t Levy’s main fascination. For him, convincing artificial intelligences are just one of the planks that will build the platform for robot companions – robots that will act as friends or pets, as full-time carers, and – perhaps – as lovers. From an interview at The Guardian:

“I think the sex robot will happen fairly soon because the bottom is dropping out of the adult entertainment market, because there’s so much sex available for nothing on the internet,” says Levy. “I think the market was worth something like $12bn a year, and they aren’t going to want to lose all their income, and this seems to me an obvious direction to go. The market must be vast, if you think of the number of vibrators that sell to women. I’m sure a male sex doll with a vibrating penis will sell better than sex dolls today. I’ll be surprised if it’s more than another three years or so before we see more advanced sex dolls with more electronics and electromechanics.

“There will be a huge amount of publicity when products like this hit the market. As soon as the media starts writing about ‘My fantastic weekend with a sex doll’, it will be like the iPhone all over again, but the queues will be longer.

Last year I reviewed Levy’s book Love & Sex With Robots for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and went on the record as being skeptical of his claims – though I had to justify my skepticism by recourse to my emotional responses as much as to my reason. As sensationalist as his claims may sound, Levy has done a lot of research into not only robots and artificial intelligence but also the aspects of human psychology and emotion that might govern our willingness to enter into complex relationships with machines; my doubts rest in the economic unlikelihood of ubiquitous robots of the type Levy describes, rather than human unwillingness to take them to the bedroom. [image by destione]

Some people, of course, find the notion of sex with robots to be ideologically repugnant – take, for example, this rather lumpy (and unintentionally hilarious) piece of speculative writing from a Christian technophobe/creationist website [via Pharyngula]:

Initially, all FACA had been designed as young adult versions of their human counterparts. However, emboldened by their sweeping victories in the courts, FACA were soon designed as young girls and boys, and even animals, to meet every possible sexual perversion of their intended markets. Even those men who bought the adult FACA versions found their attitudes changing, since there were no consequences to anything they did with their FACA. After all, it didn’t matter if you swore at your FACA or spoke harshly to it, since it always did exactly what you wanted. Over time, men who owned FACA became more and more rude to their human counterparts as the degradation of society accelerated. Men who owned a FACA disdained the company of real women, with all their incessant demands and mood swings. The sexual revolution was complete and we were all the victims.

Cringing techno-fear aside, some of the concerns there are legitimate – but Levy’s book has meticulously researched answers for them all, and while I wouldn’t call myself a convert I’d strongly recommend it as a worthwhile read for any serious science fiction reader (or writer).

Would you have sex with an android – even if only just once, to see what it was like? If not, why not?


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